Serbian Leader ‘Following Orban’ in Controlling Media – Freedom House

Vučić Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) talking to Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade in September 2016. EPA/KOCA SULEJMANOVIC

The latest Freedom House report says Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic is following the example of Viktor Orban in Hungary, in consolidating media ownership in the hands of cronies and using them to smear opponents.

Viktor Orban in Hungary and Aleksandar Vucic in Serbia have had great success in snuffing out critical journalism in their countries, blazing a trail for populist forces elsewhere, the latest report of the international rights watchdog Freedom House, published on Wednesday, says.

“Both leaders have consolidated media ownership in the hands of their cronies, ensuring that the outlets with the widest reach support the government and smear its perceived opponents. In Hungary, where the process has advanced much further, nearly 80 per cent of the media are owned by government allies,” the report, “Freedom And The Media 2019”, warns.

The authors say new forms of repression are taking hold even in open societies as well as authoritarian states, with the downward trend most acute in Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East.

“In Serbia we’re really seeing the prime example, along with Hungary, of a country that has a democratically elected leader who has now used his position of power to take control of the media and to broadcast the message that supports him remaining in power,” Sarah Repucci, the Senior Director for Research and Analysis for Freedom House, told Voice of America.

The report noted that in Serbia “an environment of intimidation and harassment inhibits journalists’ day-to-day work”.

It highlights that the Serbian authorities are also using an illiberal toolbox to co-opt the media, which “contains a variety of legal, extralegal, and economic strategies for applying pressure to critical outlets, and supporting friendly ones”.

It adds: “Hungary serves as the primary example where this co-optation [of the media] has been successful. And while Vucic and his allies have yet to consolidate control over Serbia’s media, they are following in Orban’s footsteps.”

The report notes that a recent privatization drive in Serbia has handed several outlets to owners that are friendly with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, adding that an even more worrying form of financial pressure is harassment of the media by the tax authorities.

It observes that smears and verbal harassment from Serbian politicians and online accounts have become omnipresent, and attacks by government-friendly tabloids on independent journalists also occur regularly.

“Media workers are frequently called ‘traitors’ and ‘foreign mercenaries,’” the report notes.

The leaders of Hungary and Serbia are “masters of constructing a grand narrative and crafting a new reality”, it says.

“Flooding the media landscape with their own political messages allows those in power to dominate the political agenda, divert public discussion away from sensitive issues, and ultimately control and manipulate the public sphere.”

In Serbia, Freedom House adds, the prospect of EU membership, which brings with it increasingly stringent rule-of-law monitoring, could still provide an incentive for change.

The report gives countries scores ranging from 0 – which is the worst – to 4, which is the best.

It gives Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro and Serbia scores of 2. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania receive a score of 3.

Balkan Insight

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